September 14, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: Madonna’s “W.E.”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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One of the enduring questions of Madonna’s illustrious quarter-century career is how someone so brilliant in managing every other facet of her persona has consistently made such terrible decisions when it comes to movies.  It’s the one medium where she’s never succeeded, and even when she’s occasionally done something right, she instantly follows it with another foul-up:  her bright debut in Desperately Seeking Susan preceded the famously dreadful Shanghai Surprise, and her decent performance in the hugely hyped Evita led to the even more unwatchableThe Next Big Thing.  Her last lead role was in the atrocious Swept Away, and now she’s moved on to directing.  Her debut Filth and Wisdom came and went with little notice, but this time she’s back on a much bigger scale:  W.E., which played the Toronto Film Festival last night.

W.E. refers to the initials of Wallis Simpson and the King who abdicated his throne for her, Edward VII of England, and the movie purports some kind of mystical tie between Simpson (Andrea Riseborough, unrecognizable from her meek waitress in Brighton Rock) and Wally, the dissatisfied wife (Abbie Cornish) of a Manhattan psychiatrist (Richard Coyle) in 1999, when the Windsors’ possessions were being sold at auction at Sotheby’s.  To put it bluntly, the script by Madonna and Alek Keshishian (director of her concert documentary Truth or Dare) makes no sense whatsoever, and if Madonna’s name weren’t attached to it, it’s almost inconceivable that the picture could ever have been made.  From the intense whitewashing of Edward’s (James D’Arcy) historical Nazi sympathies, to Wallis Simpson being some sort of fairy godmother to Wally, to Wally’s romance novel affair with a Russian security officer at Sotheby’s (Oscar Isaac, who’s been popping up all over the festival in impressively diverse roles)–W.E. is a stranger to logic.
W.E. is an awful movie, all right, but it’s often a watchably awful one.  The picture’s been described as resembling a music video, but that’s not really accurate (except for one scene–I think it was Wally’s hallucination but who knows–where Wallis dances to a contemporary song even though it’s the 1930s, at an amphetamine-fueled party)–it’s much more like one of those videos fashion magazines and design houses do these days, for posting on their websites and in stores.  Madonna knows her way around a camera move, and although the movie may have been designed instead of directed, it’s been designed within a milimeter of its life:  cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski (his films include The Young Victoria), production designer Martin Childs, and costume designer Arianne Phillips seem to have been told to spare no expense and pay no attention to objective reality (the security guy’s insanely swanky apartment would probably go for mid-seven figures, which should spur a rush for jobs at Sotheby’s). 
Apart from its visual thrills, W.E. offers little, except for authors of future dissertations who choose to analyze Madonna’s interest in the isolation and emotional pain of rich women in the public eye.  Her and Keshishian’s dialogue is like a knife in the ears, and even the very talented actors on display like Cornish aren’t given anyone recognizably human to play.  The movie feels like, and essentially is, the ultimate vanity production.
People complained that Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was superficial, but they didn’t know what superficial looked like:  W.E. makes Coppola’s film feel like it was made by Robert Bresson.  This kind of high-priced, unrestrained idiocy doesn’t come along many times in a lifetime, so don’t resist the temptation to take a look.  And for Madonna, it’s never too late to consider a segue into animation.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."